Strunk & WhIte? Ooops indeed!

Subject: Strunk & WhIte? Ooops indeed!
From: SANDRA CHARKER <scharker -at- OZEMAIL -dot- COM -dot- AU>
Date: Sun, 19 Nov 1995 14:14:07 +1000

Bonni Graham <bonnig -at- IX -dot- NETCOM -dot- COM> wrote:

>A couple of Alert Posters (to paraphrase Dave Barry) noticed that in
>one of my asides about correct apostrophe usage in a recent post I
>actually used the apostrophe incorrectly.

>Ooops -- they were right.

>According to Strunk and White, the correct way to create a possessive
>out of a proper noun ending in "s" is with "'s" (e.g., Gwen Barnes's)
>not simply "'" as I wrote.

Even Strunk & White doesn't say that this is _the correct way_. It says "Use
this rule", which leaves open the inference that at least one other rule
exists. And the inference is correct.

The Chicago Manual of Style (13th edition. I don't have a copy of the latest
edition to hand at the moment) has 12 paragraphs on possessives (6.12 thru

The last of them says that the U. of Chicago Press "prefers its own rule... -
which is essentially a restatement of William Strunk's 'Rule no. 1'. The Press
is willing to accept other ways of handling these situations, however -- if
they are consistently followed throughout a manuscript. Often a logical
consistency is easier to attain than the appearance of consistency, and the
latter is important in good writing. Most sensitive writers and editors would
be distress, for instance, by the logical consistency of the possessives in a
sentence like 'Grinling Gibbons' wood carvings adorn some of Inigo Jones's and
James Gibbs's London churches,' and would wish to take some sort of corrective

Don't worry Bonni. I reckon Sister Mary Rose could have hung Strunk & White's
wet noodles out on the Ruler of Death to dessicate.

I personally would like to brand every copy of Elements of Style with a CAUTION
sign; maybe even with DANGER. It always was simplistic: "Omit needless words",
even said three times, is no help in deciding which words are needless and
which are needed, let alone whether some are needy and others needful and what
the heck is the difference. The 1979 edition is wrong in some matters (for
example, its discussion of 'hopefully'), both wrong and out of date in others
(for example, the article on 'They'), and limited in others (Rules 1 and 2 were
both incorrect in British and Australian English when Strunk wrote them;
probably they were also incorrect in most English-speaking countries in Asia
and Africa). Strunk's 'commands', which so charmed E.B. White, have somehow
been invested with the authority of literal prescriptions, to be taken without
question by all writers and editors of English and applied without mercy or
qualification to all their readers. They just aren't that good.

I do use Strunk & White as one of my standard references, and not only because
my current employer requires me to: behind the commands there are some
guidelines that I find well expressed and useful. But I think that a book
called "The Elements of Style" in which the first rule is to do with a
relatively uncommon problem of word formation needs to be taken with a large
dose of scepticism. In particular, writers working in the US on publications
that will be read overseas (many writers of software documentation, for
example) need to be wary of such a dogmatic approach to usage.

Sandra Charker

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